The job market is a scary place for graduates. Websites like indeed.com list jargony job titles in their thousands, while individual application processes mean candidates spend hours writing personalised cover letters for specific roles, often hearing nothing back at all. For many graduates the hunt for jobs sparks a sudden realisation: that is, your degree is more or less irrelevant. It is a box ticked for employers and a single line on a CV.
Experience is what matters now.
In a time of record breaking university attendance numbers and grade inflation, a degree is no longer enough to distinguish yourself from the crowd, and experience provides a crucial foot in the door when finding employment. That being said, relevant work experience is not accessible for all students – during my time at the University of Oxford I was actively discouraged by my college from working during the term and in the holidays. In fact, the Christmas, Easter, and Summer breaks are referred to as ‘vacations’ across the university, implying that students would ‘vacate’ Oxford but would still be expected to continue with their academic studies as they would during the term. This restriction on undergraduates working (although there is some leeway for graduates) creates two problems. Firstly, with no fixed income other than a student loan, many students find themselves spending the majority of their loan on accommodation, with little to spare. This means that many students are required to work against the advice of the university during the long summer holiday. For these students, unpaid work experience or internships are not financially viable, as many simply cannot afford to work for free. Secondly, capable graduates who lack in relevant experience can be automatically discredited from certain opportunities. The restrictions in place also perpetuate Oxford’s elitist tendencies: those wealthy enough can afford to take on unpaid opportunities, or are even able to use contacts to bypass the need for experience at all.
An Oxford education is strenuous, challenging, yet insanely rewarding. From the perspective of a graduate, the restrictions on employment are frustrating, but they are in place for a reason: for the majority of students, balancing the termly workload with a job would prove impossible. No doubt commercial experience is an invaluable asset to a potential employer, but I believe the Oxford experience should be considered just that: as ‘experience’. The Oxford system and its unique style of education provide its graduates with a rigorous academic skillset and work ethic. Nevertheless, these skills have the potential to be overlooked by employers, who at times tend towards a myopic focus on the experience. One would be hard-pressed to think of an Oxford graduate as being in any way disadvantaged when compared to the general graduate population. However, I think it is fair to say that, for some Oxford graduates (in particular those with less economic means) a lack of experience is a daunting prospect, especially when competing with other candidates who tick all the right boxes. Perhaps, the key takeaway (from my post-uni experience so far) is that a graduate job market is a scary place for all, regardless of the prestige of one’s institution…